Rosh Hashana 5777
Rabbi Larry Freedman
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Shana tova! A good year to you. Shana tova metukah! A sweet new year to you. I hope you enjoy the honey to start us off on a sweet note.
One of the joys of Rosh Hashana is celebrating the new with the old. That passed down brisket recipe. Gathering with friends and catching up with family. Opening up the good old red Gates of Repentance. But not this year. This year, along with the familiarity of the tried and true, we have a new machzor, Mishkan Ha-nefesh. Let’s talk about it and let’s start with those two words: new machzor. First, a little history.
Because you can’t fit everything in one volume, synagogues always had two prayer books. One would be the siddur with Shabbat and daily prayers in it. The other would have all the prayers for the yearly cycle of annual holidays and that word, cycle, is translated as machzor. At some point publishers changed it up. The main siddur now has Shabbat, daily and holiday prayers and the machzor is the specialty item with just the High Holidays. The “cycle” book –machzor- is now only used once a year. Waddayagonnado?
New is the other word. New is a word both beloved and feared. Some people enjoy the novelty of new things and some people like things the way they’ve been. I would guess this is especially true for those people who only come here once or twice a year: you’re looking for the tried and true, the comfortable and familiar. And who can blame you? We all love that the High Holidays repeat so many favorite foods and melodies and prayers and themes. I know I look forward to that. Still, sometimes, it’s good to have something new.
The red covered Gates of Repentance first came out in 1975. Think about that. 1975. Where were you in 1975? Aside from family members or an original Born to Run concert t, what else is still in your life from 1975?
The innovation of that machzor was a break from the “thee and thou” style of the Union Prayer Book and brought Chaim Stern’s glorious poetry in prose that carried us on a dreamy journey through the days. But, styles change, people change, the Jewish community changes. Like haircuts from 1975, that machzor had fallen out of date. What is never out of date is the fact that although we strive for the best, inevitability we will, from time to time, fail.
Now, one person sitting around for a couple hours thinking about personal failures is a psychological concern. A couple hundred people doing it together, however, is a healthy expression of personal and communal accountability. To do that, to have that personal and communal accountability, we need a guidebook that will help us. This is our machzor. More than our Gates of Repentance and UPB, this machzor is designed to highlight and encourage both the communal and personal experience.
Why don’t you pick it up while I’m talking? The first thing you’ll notice is the two page layout on most of the pages. The traditional prayers and a faithful translation are on the right. Alternative expressions of the theme of that prayer are on the left. You’ll also notice that there is often more than one interpretive expression on the left. And perhaps you’ve noticed some interesting notes along the bottom. In a few places you’ll find a page with a blue background. This isn’t liturgy as much as background information for the section it precedes.
And now you’ve probably stopped listening to me because you are looking at all of the material. And that is by design. Gone are italics and instruction. The rigor of when you speak and when you don’t speak are gone. The editors actually hope that as we say our prayers, as the cantor sings the melodies, that you will feel free to explore the text, dwell on the text. The goal is that you follow along but also drift away. The goal is that you read those things that speak to you. There is too much in this machzor and that is by design. If we want to be mindful of the amount of time we gather for each service, and I am very mindful of that, then we can’t, we must not read everything from the bima. That leaves you with the space to read it yourself, if you wish. Read the blue pages; dwell on a poem we just read or on some prose we didn’t read. We’ll all catch up together at some point.
You may also notice that some of the left side readings will be contradictory. The editors call it integrated theology. It is an attempt to bring in a variety of ideas and theologies to capture a sense of where Reform Jews are. We don’t all understand our heritage the same way, we don’t all understand God the same way. And a lot of Reform Jews, being the rationally educated people we are, have problems with the very idea of God. There are a number of readings that speak to that. Some I’ve chosen for us to read aloud, some are left for you to discover.
Bottom line, keep an eye out for the integrated theology and mull it over. Do you appreciate the opposing ideas? Do you find them helpful for your own sense of spirituality? And, take note, there’s more science brought in than ever before in a Reform Movement machzor. The Reform Movement has no conflict between religion and science and we tend to be baffled by the people who do. Science tells you how, faith tells you why, religion is the attempt to figure out what to do with it. No problem. So if you know of someone who just can’t abide doing that religion stuff, have we got a machzor for you. And let me also say, rational science minded people also make mistakes and hurt others. The idea of taking some time off to reflect, admit error and plan for a better tomorrow is hardly in conflict with science. Reflection isn’t all that empirical, I know, but then again, neither is hubris. No one is beyond needing a little teshuva in his or her life.
Back to the machzor. The biggest change is the shofar service. The shofar service tomorrow has always been in three parts. Mallchuyot speaks to the theme of God’s kingship, a primary theme for the day. Zichronot is about God remembering and then Shofarot has the theme of the shofar itself. These three were always together and are always a highlight. Adults look forward to the sound. Parents bring their children in to see it. Because it’s a great moment, the editors of the machzor decided to break it up and spread the three sections throughout the morning. Sounding the shofar at three different times allows the flow of the morning to have more peaks and valleys. Pay close attention tomorrow and you’ll see that Malchuyot comes in after the declaration of God’s kingship, Zichronot after the Torah readings that feature God remembering and Shofarot coming towards the end as another aural and visual crescendo before the prayers resolve and we end our tefillot.
As I’ve tested pilot versions, participated in mock services, and sat in on feedback sessions, I’ve enjoyed the freeing aspect of the new machzor. Secular culture prizes a more DIY approach and doesn’t care for one size fits all. The internet has made freedom to follow one’s own path so second nature that it seems odd to me when I can’t rewind the radio. We have grown accustomed to letting ideas lead us to wherever we wish to go. This machzor reflects that by having us all be together but not always on the same page and I hope you’ll embrace that.
I’m hoping for a second benefit as well. The old machzor, because it was strictly uniform, had turned in to a bit of a slog. We read, we sang, we read, we sang. Sometimes the glorious themes of a prayer were obvious, sometimes not so much. I’m hoping the new machzor helps us feel more deeply the themes of the holiday. One theme is just the exuberance for the start of the new year. New school year, new fiscal year, new football season, autumn leaves, a joyful or not so joyful conclusion to the baseball season. A new Jewish year celebrates coming together with friends and family and celebrating another year, another chance to do great things.
Another theme is recognizing God’s kingship which is designed to bring humility. If we accept the metaphor of God as the king and ourselves as the subjects, doesn’t a loyal subject want to please the king? Doesn’t the simple man or woman want to present him or herself as best we can to the monarch? Imagine the 90 year old Queen Elizabeth II. Americans aren’t supposed to even like the concept of royalty but given the chance to meet the queen, we all get wobbly knees. Don’t even get me started what we would do before William and Kate. We want to dress up, present ourselves well. Inform them of the best we can be, give them a tour of our town, our home which has been cleaned and polished to make a good presentation. Do we think Queen Elizabeth doesn’t know that our kitchens can be messy, that our towns can have a bit of litter? Of course she does. It is not the perfection she seeks but rather that we aspire to be the best we can be, that we make a good showing, that we say, here are my goals and I work every day to make them real not just on this day but every day. Thus it is before the very King of Kings on Rosh Hashana.
This machzor is designed to help us identify and embrace those themes and make them our own.
This new machzor wants to remind us that Rosh Hashana is joyful; it is a day captioned #goals. It is not a sullen day to feel bad but a day of “inspo” as the kids say. #be a better person. #don’t be such a jerk. #life is good. #you got this. #take the day off and focus. This new machzor is a corrective to that feeling of laborious page turning. The new machzor hopes to inspire you to find joy in the day beyond our time in this room. The day is yours, a gift of our 4000 year-old heritage so take the day off. Take control of your life and join your family and friends. Come to Tashlich down at the river, make bubbie’s secret brisket recipe, join us on our hike tomorrow. This year it’s very easy, a walk along the river. But with us on the hike or not, just spend time with family and friends and embrace the energy of a new year. If you haven’t figured out, I’m not big on guilt but I am big on you taking advantage of the best Jewish living has to offer you. It’s there. It’s at your feet. Just pick it up. It’s a new year.
A new year. What will you do with it? What will you accomplish? What will you get done? Just imagine the possibilities. On Yom Kippur we’ll talk about the rough stuff of apologizing and feeling bad about mistakes we’ve made. Can’t be avoided but for now we celebrate. We have a new year ahead of us, an uplifting, bracing story told in our prayers and a new machzor to bring those ideas to you. I hope you’ll be open to the change and embrace the vision of our new machzor and embrace the joy of this uplifting day.